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Move over, Christmas: It’s time for Hanukkah movies and shows to shine

Could Hanukkah shows be the new stars of the holiday season?

Of course, it may sound like a ridiculous idea to suggest. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Christmas programs that find their way onto our screens each season, from classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to newer entries. The Hallmark Channel alone has dozens of Christmas films on tap for the 2023 holiday season.

But there’s also a growing canon of programming tied to Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights that kicked off this year on Thursday night. Hallmark has been a big part of the push, having released a series of Hanukkah movies in recent years, including “Double Holiday” (2019); “Holiday Date” (2019); “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” (2020); “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah” (2021); and “Hannukah on Rye” (2022).

This year, Hallmark adds another to its Hanukkah canon with “Round and Round” — a “Groundhog Day”-style story in which a woman is trapped in a time loop and keeps reliving her parents’ Hanukkah party. The film debuts on Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.

Hallmark’s Hanukkah films have found a sizable viewership. Last year, “Hanukkah on Rye” attracted an audience of 1.6 million viewers on its initial day of release, according to Nielsen, the ratings service. That put it almost on par with a new Hallmark Christmas film release, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which drew 2 million viewers.

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has also gotten in on the Hanukkah act. Last year, it debuted “Menorah in the Middle,” a food-themed rom-com set in a Jewish bakery. (The Hanukkah menorah — or hanukkiah — is a key symbol of the holiday.)

And that’s to say nothing of the many Hanukkah programs that are becoming classics in their own right: In a recent story, The Forward, a Jewish publication, cited more than a dozen examples, from “A Rugrats Chanukah” (1996) to a Hanukkah-themed episode of the popular sitcom “Friends” (2000).

Oh, and let’s not forget Adam Sandler and the various versions of his “Hanukkah Song” — not a “program” per se, but a pop-culture zeitgeist that celebrates numerous Jewish stars. (“David Lee Roth lights the menorah…”).

Sandler said he wrote the tune so that Jewish children didn’t feel left out on the holiday. And indeed, there was a time — say, a generation ago — when there was little to no concept of Hanukkah entertainment, save for a couple of kiddie songs.

“When I was growing up in the 1980s, I just understood that growing up Jewish in America meant being underrepresented in pop culture in general, but especially this time of year,” said Esther Kustanowitz, co-host of an award-winning Jewish-centric pop-culture podcast called The Bagel Report.

So, what changed? Kustanowitz points to one key factor: the popularity of Jewish-themed content in general. If anything, Hanukkah is just an extension of the trend. Consider the popularity of a Jewish-themed series like Amazon
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Prime’s Emmy Award-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Or the Jewish characters or storylines in other recent hit shows, from “Broad City” to “Orange Is the New Black.”

It speaks to a broader idea — namely, the growing multicultural sensibility of America, experts note. It’s not just about Hanukkah — it’s also about the holidays of other faiths, from Ramadan (a key event on the Islamic calendar) to Diwali (a holiday observed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists), all of which are receiving increased recognition in this country.

The idea that “everyone celebrates Christmas is finally ebbing away, and so are the TV execs who believe that,” said Eric Silver, creative head at Multitude Productions, a podcast producer.

You also can’t ignore how the media landscape has changed, argues Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. In the days when the TV world was dominated by three major networks, programs about faiths and cultures outside the mainstream had little chance of finding their place at the table. But with the advent of cable, and then streaming programming, “there’s so much more real estate…there are so many more tables,” he said.

Thompson makes another point: At this stage, the Christmas story and the well-known fictional Christmas characters, such as Santa, Rudolph and Scrooge, are so entrenched that audiences may be looking for something new and different. That leaves more room for stories about another holiday.

Hanukkah is “absolutely untrounced territory,” Thompson said.


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